[The following post is courtesy of Vanessa Cullins, M.D., Vice President of Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood. Upon speaking with Vanessa and asking for information on STDs we began discussing HIV/AIDS. Naively, I mentioned that college kids are safe and know to protect themselves against this deadly disease. Turns out, I was wrong, and thinking that way is incredibly dangerous.]
Once in a while, we get a variation of this question via e-mail: “I’m a woman in college, and I’m wondering if I still need to be worried about getting HIV. Isn’t it pretty much under control by now?”
HIV/AIDS is definitely still a threat — especially among young people and women. Today, women account for more than one-quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, and women of color are especially affected by HIV infection and AIDS. The growing complacency about this deadly disease is alarming. You cannot tell from looking at someone whether that person is infected with HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease (STD). That is why all sexually active people need to protect themselves against HIV.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 56,000 women and men are infected with HIV every year. And the American College Health Association has found that the rate of HIV infection among college students is about the same as it is for the general public. It seems that a lot of people — especially women — aren’t getting the message.
So what’s a girl to do?
First, get tested regularly. Know your status and the status of your partners. Planned Parenthood Federation of America has partnered with MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundation to launch the GYT — Get Yourself Tested — campaign. Visit http://gyt09.org to get information you can rely on about STDs, including HIV, and find your nearest testing location.
Second, plan your safer-sex strategy. Condoms used correctly and consistently are the best protection against HIV and other STDs, including HPV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Condoms reduce the risk of HIV infection substantially. In fact, aside from abstinence and other forms of intimacy that result in no contact with another person’s genitals, condoms are the best protection against HIV. Some studies show that about one out of two college students used a condom the last time they had sex. That’s good. But it also means that one of two didn’t. And that’s not good — that’s a whole lot of people playing Russian roulette with contracting HIV/AIDS.
Having a good safer-sex strategy means knowing your risks and deciding which ones you are willing to take. Here’s a step-by-step walk-through of some of your options:
• Use a latex or female condom during vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
• If you are not using a condom, it’s safer to have oral sex than vaginal or anal sex.
• Rubbing against your partner, whether clothed or naked, is safer than sexual intercourse. Rubbing against your partner clothed is even safer.
• If you and your partner are engaged in mutual fondling, it is safer to wash your hands before touching your own genitals.
• Masturbating alone or together — or having phone sex or cybersex — is the safest sex option.
But the most important safer-sex strategy of all is to assume that all potential partners may be infected — and then take precautions. The reality is that people will lie in order to have sex. Another reality is that many people with HIV don’t know it! Given these odds, you can’t rely on anyone else to protect you.
Remember: all sexually active people are at risk, and we need to protect ourselves.